I had the great pleasure to spend a week in Loreto, Mexico - with my sister, Karen, and Sue and MaryAnn, and some other friends. It was a wonderful blend of relaxation and adventure. But the most amazing part was grey whale watching (and touching!) in Magdalena Bay.
Every year, grey whales travel the longest migration known to exist among mammals, swimming 10,000-14,000 miles per year as they make their way from the cold Arctic seas to Mexico’s warm water lagoons and back. This yearly trek begins every October as the Arctic ice begins to freeze southward and their food supply begins to migrate. The whales may only average 5 mph, but by pushing onward day and night they travel about 75 miles per day.
Baja California provides grey (and other) whales with nutrient-rich water created by cool ocean currents pushing oxygen and nutrients up toward the surface, where they blend with the warm sunlight and bloom in a wealth of food for marine animals. Small plankton, in particular, is abundant during the peak winter months.
Grey whales also enjoy the protected waters of Baja’s calving lagoons, where they stopover for the winter months. Gray whales give birth and nurse in only three locations, all of which can be found off the Baja peninsula. In these sheltered waters, grey whales are able to give birth, nurse and mate without fear of predators.
We were in a “panga boat,” which is an open-holed fishing vessel powered by an outboard motor. It was relatively small, sitting 8 passengers and the captain. It was low enough for us to be able to reach over and touch the water – and the whales – who actually initiated contact with the boats out of their own curiosity and seeming desire to play.
At one point we were surrounded by a pod of mothers and calves swimming around and under our boat, and between our boat and another, coming up out of the water to look at us and allow many of us to touch and pet them! (I was inches from that amazing experience, but didn’t actually get to touch one, though Karen, Sue and MaryAnn all did! See the picture - that’s Sue!)
According to marine biologists, “They spy hop, slap their flippers and show off their tail flukes. Perhaps the most soul-touching moments, however, come from the gray whale mothers who introduce their calves to humans as they nudge them up toward the boat. Scientists hypothesize that these are learned behaviors from mothers who were also introduced to humans as calves in Baja.” Such sociable interactions have earned Baja’s grey whales the nickname of the “friendlies.”
Contact with wild animals is ordinarily discouraged – but in the case of the grey whales in Baja California, there is no evidence to show that this causes any harm to the whales. In fact, this is actually one of the most responsible examples of whale watching in the world – in the way that it is strictly managed, with low visitor numbers, strict regulations on how the boats are driven, allowing the whales the freedom to behave naturally, and the encounters always being initiated by the whales, not the boat drivers.
And, as one article described, “The presence of the grey whales, their incredible friendliness towards humans, and the opportunities for whale watching vacations, have literally saved this region from development, pollution and heavy industry.”
In the 1990’s, there were plans to build a saltworks in San Ignacio Lagoon, which would have devasted the grey whale’s breeding grounds and the desert landscape that surrounded it. Though environmentalists protested, it seemed the plans were unstoppable. Until then president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, brought his family to San Ignacio. “The friendly whales lived up to their reputation and approached his boat, bobbing out of the water, and allowing themselves to be stroked by the president’s wife and children. Just days later, the saltworks was called off – by the president himself.”
Score one for our environment and the grey whale population. There are no words to aptly describe the transformative experience of connecting with these giant mammals who display intelligence beyond our understanding and offer us a powerful lesson in humility and wonder.
In The Four Paws of Spiritual Success, HHC shares the Tibetan Buddhist definition of a blessing: “A blessing is the capacity to change. When we are blessed, we receive the inspiration, the energy, the will to transform our experience of reality in some way, from ordinary to transcendental.”
I can say I was truly blessed by this grey whale experience – by the respect and responsibility demonstrated by the indigenous local Mexican community who facilitate the adventure – and by the amazing grey whales who initiate contact with us humans. It’s something I will never forget and will be forever grateful for.